Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

Pakhale got his chance to find out what ceramics are capable of— and to push the material into new territory—when he was invited to a residency at the European Ceramic Work Centre (EKWC) in the Netherlands. The centre offers artists, architects, and designers the opportunity to live and work on site for three-month stints, where they can explore and avail themselves of studio space, workshops with complete facilities, and the expertise of skilled technicians and craftsmen. Pakhale points out that they often in­vite people who have never worked in ceramics as a means to spur innovation. “Not being a ceramicist,” he points out, “you don’t know the limitations, so you’re willing to try new things, which lets you go further. I do have a lot of respect for this process, perhaps one of the most magical yet age old innovations of humankind.” He continues, “I wanted to use ceramics to create a piece of furniture as a symbolic object. This is an important thing because ceramics is one of those materials that has a long history; as long as the Earth has been here, ceramics have been here. But it’s also a very high-tech material. This is the paradox I was working with.”

Pakhale worked at EKWC on two different occasions, separated by more than a year. His first residency involved working with staff to develop designs and models; the second was focused more on the technical aspects of making the chair work at full scale. Part of his goal was always to create something that could be commercially produced on at least a limited scale. “The object has to be multiplied to become a valid object,” he says. “Then it will be a valid design in terms of produce-ability. As an industrial designer, my goal is to make a serial production.”

From the beginning, he did not envision a traditional use for this chair. “This is not a chair to sit in front of your computer for eight hours a day,” he points out. “The Flowering Offering Chair is more a chair as an object to welcome people. The typical setting will be in a lobby or front desk of a hotel. It becomes a ceremonial ob­ject, something like a universal, friendly gesture. You offer a flower to someone you like. Design is not only about cut-and-dried func­tion; it’s a psychological function to welcome someone as well.”

© Early sketches show respect for tradition—the seat is a thrown pot turned on its head — alongside the more modern requirements for a joint that will hold the two-piece seat and back together, and the simultaneously playful yet and formal touch of an integrated vase. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”© A watercolor sketch by the designer imagines the Flower Offering Chair at an amusing and yet beautifully overblown scale, with birds happily accepting its offer of hospitality. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

To create an object that was to work at so many different levels, Pakhale and the staff at EKWC began with the fundamentals. “We went back to something very basic, which is throwing a pot,” he says. “I don’t know how to do that, but I found someone who does traditional pottery. It was an amazing amount of research into materials and the mixture of clay that would work for this chair. Ceramic is a very delicate and unpredictable material. Un­like metal and plastic, in ceramic there is an element of surprise. You make it, let it dry, and then fire it in a kiln, and in the firing process, anything can happen.” And, many things did happen. Models of various sizes were made, clays were mixed and remixed, wall thicknesses were adjusted to allow for natural shrinkage of the drying clay, pieces were fired, and sometimes they came out beautifully, other times they cracked or became distorted. Then, back to the wheel and more pots were thrown. Once all these tests were completed, the team went to full-scale prototyping. Not only did the clay composition have to be just right, but because of different thicknesses in each piece, firing had to be calibrated very carefully. And then there was the joining of the back pieces to the seat. “At first, we put them together and
then fired them,” Pakhale says. “But this made them susceptible to cracking and exploding. So I designed a special joint in ceram­ics by making the parts separately with a joint, and connecting them after firing with a two-component polyurethane glue. Fine­grained sculpture clay was used. The piece was placed on a shrinkage slab to allow equal shrinkage during drying and firing in order to avoid deformation or splitting.”

Finding the right finish was also critical to making the most of the material itself. “I wanted to make it look very much like ceramic from close up or from a distance,” Pakhale says. “Normal glaze was not used because, being a chair and having a glossy finish, it could easily be misunderstood as a plastic chair, and I wanted to go away from that.” After testing several different glazes, they settled on terra sigillata, which, according to Pakhale, is Latin for “earth fitted with a seal.” It is an ancient technique, used by Greeks and Romans, that applies a very thin layer of clay slip with a brush to the surface. “It gives it a satiny, glowing kind of finish, a very rich texture that’s not gloss, not matte,” he says. “I wanted it to look like a silk cloth.”

(^) At the European Ceramic Work Centre (EKWC) in the Netherlands, a skilled ceramic artisan works on creating the first prototype for the chair. This part of the seat was created using a pottery wheel. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

© A technical drawing shows not only dimensions but also the vari­ous parts of the chair, including the removable vase and critical joint detail. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

© Below right: A technical drawing shows the detail of the joint, which proved to be the most challenging aspect of the product development. The chair parts were originally joined before firing, but they did not hold. This joint solved the problem: the pieces are made and fired separately, glazed with terra sigillata, and then glued together. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

46 DESIGN SECRETS: FURNITURE

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

© The back and bottom sections are loaded into the kiln for firing. Supports are put around each piece to help them retain their shape and minimize the potential for cracking. All parts are made with slip casting, then fired, and joined with polyurethane glue. Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

© The first master model, made according to the 3D CAD drawings, was used to create a Plaster of Paris mold that will allow the chair to be made in quantity, rather than by hand.

Credit: Satyendra Pakhale

(^)The designer enjoys a moment of rest in his “ceremonial object” after several years of work, punctuated by two residencies at the EKWC, innumerable prototypes and tests, many cracks and explo­sions, and finally moving the chair into industrial production. Credit: Соте Bastiansen, EKWC

The next phase, critical to the chair’s ultimate viability, was to find a way to produce the piece in some non-handmade quantity. “It took quite some time to search to find a ceramic workshop that could make the special mold,” Pakhale says. “The mold is made of plaster of Paris, one for the seat and one for the backrest with a special metal fixture to turn these huge molds in the slip cast­ing process. The two parts are identical, so they can be made from the same mold.” As an added bonus, the vase in the back sec­tions can be removed for cleaning after the flowers have faded. While Pakhale doesn’t expect to ever make thousands of these chairs, the fact that he can make dozens is important. He wants an object that, while ceremonial, still lives in the real world. To this end, he points out that not only is the Flower Offering Chair extremely sturdy, but it can be used indoors or out.

Although Pakhale forced the ceramic material and traditional processes into untested and innovative areas, the clay pushed him right back. “The ceramic material itself is very surprising. It’s very hard to control,” he notes. “For a person like me, who is a control freak, I need to control every single detail. I have a very clear picture in my mind, and with every industrial design project, I know how it all fits together. If you have a concrete idea, you can get it in 3D software right away and make it as you want it. With ceramic, you can’t do that.” And as satisfying as the final product is, with all its whimsical/symbolic, ancient/modern, high – tech/high-touch notions blended together, Pakhale is ready to take what he’s learned from this project into new materials and new products: “Right now, I am working on high-tech ceramic products for everyday use, a kind of engineering ceramics they use in aeronautics and space research. But I don’t believe in being in love with one material for the rest of my life,” he says. “I need to move on.”

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”

Think of materials and what they can do for us. We think that materials are for one kind of thing,” says industrial designer Satyendra Pakhale, speaking of his Flower Offering Chair. “You never think of ceramic and a chair.”